Women in Mahayana Buddhism

Respectful and tolerant attitudes towards women are characteristic of the Mahayana tradition. The first female monastic communities are examples of perception of women as equal members of society. Penetration of Indian Mahayana Buddhism into other Asian countries contributed to the high status of women in the East and progressive development of society.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the fundamental value is bodhichitta, as a sincere desire to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Analysis of the Mahayana texts shows that on the basis of faith in reincarnation, the existence of kinship ties is recognized. It is emphasized that every living being was a mother for everyone else. Buddhists convinced of reincarnation represents all living beings as their mothers. Identification of love and compassion with the image of Mother shows the important role of the feminine in Mahayana Buddhism.

Lotus Sutra tells the story of the daughter of a dragon king. She was eight year old in the story, and she turned into the body of a man and become a Buddha instantly, to demonstrate the point that everyone can become a Buddha.

In China (where Mahayana Buddhism prevails), one of the most powerful champions of Buddhism was the Empress Wu (late 7th century). She knew that a woman seizing control of the throne went against Confucian tradition, so she used Buddhist scriptures to justify her rule. Although she was ruthlessly using Buddhism for her own political gain, the new sutras which declared the spiritual potential of women benefited the nuns in various Chinese sects. It was not uncommon for nuns to practice and work alongside monks in the monasteries, and for male and female clergy to participate together in rituals. In Chinese temples, nuns enjoyed a high degree of respect and equality, a situation that was not to be in Japan.

In Chinese Buddhism, Guanyin is one of the most popular Buddhist saints. The image of Guanyin goes back to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvare, who helps people find salvation.

The revolutionary reforms of the 20th century, including in the countries of the Buddhist East, changed the status of women. In order to unite Buddhist women from Eastern and Western countries, the international association “Sakyadhita” or “Daughter of The Buddha” was created. It was founded by nun Karma Lekshe Tsomo, belonging to the Mahayana direction.